Amid crisis, Venezuelans remember Chavez 2 years after death

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Early morning fireworks burst over Venezuela's capital Thursday for a commemoration of Hugo Chavez on the second anniversary of his death, even as economic crisis threatens to undo his legacy of lifting many out of poverty.

President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's tearful daughters and other mourners gathered later in the day at his tomb in a former military barracks perched atop a hillside slum. Chavez died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer, but the exact nature of the cancer has never been revealed.

While the socialist leader is still revered by many poor Venezuelans, support for Maduro, his hand-picked successor as president, has plunged almost as quickly as the price of oil on which the economy depends.

The economy has been suffering for months from widespread shortages of basic goods that contributed to 68 percent inflation last year, the highest in the world. And poverty, which had fallen under Chavez, has been steadily increasing, a rise that began even before the economy started to contract last year, according to the United Nations.

More bad news could be on the way, with analysts pointing to a precipitous drop of Venezuela's currency on the black market as a sign that inflation could hit triple digits soon.

The so-called "strong bolivar" created by Chavez in 2007 weakened to a record low 280 per U.S. dollar Thursday, according to DolarToday, a website that tracks the black market rate based on currency trades along the Colombian border. The bolivar has fallen about 40 percent in the past two weeks, according the website.

"Three days ago the dollar at 220 was considered too expensive and now it's cheap," said Jose Guerra, a former central bank researcher

Driving the currency's slide is the apparent failure of the government's new currency system to meet demand for greenbacks. Last month, the government unveiled what it said would be a free-floating exchange rate at which individuals and businesses could buy dollars when unable to obtain them at the tightly controlled preferential rates reserved for priority imports.

But obtaining dollars at the new so-called Simadi rate, now at 176 bolivars per dollar, has proven elusive.

As Maduro's approval ratings have dipped into the low-20 percent range, he has leaned ever more heavily on the legacy of his popular predecessor.

The socialist government has rolled out a type font based on Chavez's handwriting, and this winter it debuted a ballet based on the revolutionary leader's life. Chavez's portrait in a red beret is still seen on innumerable buildings. His words and his rendition of the national anthem can still be heard daily on television.

Even when the Chavez highlight reel isn't playing, Maduro features photos of the late leader at nearly all official events. He once said he had spotted his mentor in the form of a little bird.

Chavez tapped the world's biggest oil reserves to aid the poor during his 14 years in office, and the portion of the population in poverty fell from nearly 50 percent in 2002 to less than 30 percent in 2011, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America.

But the same organization said in a January report that Venezuela's poverty level rose from 25 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2013. More than 1 million people are believed to have fallen back into poverty in the two years since Chavez's death, according to a recent survey by three Caracas universities.

Isabel de Perales, a housewife in a staunchly pro-Chavez neighborhood in western Caracas, said the situation would never have deteriorated under the former leader.

"When Chavez was around things were better," she said while waiting in line under a piercing sun to enter a grocery store. "I don't what's wrong with Maduro but the situation is grave."


Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, and Hannah Dreier in Caracas contributed to this report.